When I signed my daughter up for ballet classes at 2-and-a-half, I thought dance would be fun for her. She was a girlie, princess-loving child, and tutus and twirling seemed right up her alley. OK, and maybe also because the ex-dancer in me was excited to share my love of ballet with her. Plus, I had always wished I had started my own training earlier. I figured that if she happened to enjoy it and wanted to continue, she would benefit from the confidence that comes along with extra years of training. I thought this would help her if she ever decided to try out for a school dance team or a part in the school musical. Well as it turned out, said daughter took to dance like a fish to water. At 4, when she had the opportunity to take not one ballet/tap combo class but a ballet and hip-hop class, she couldn't wait! At 8, when the studio split the girls into recreation and accelerated classes, she was ecstatic to be asked to be in the higher level group. At 10, she decided that her goal was to dance professionally. At 11, she auditioned for her studio's professional company. We were at a breakfast with the grandparents when she got her acceptance email. The whole family, of course, turned our brunch into a minicelebration.
Even as my daughter worked her way up the ballet ranks, I never fully grasped what that elite-level training looked like.
Her room is covered in American Ballet Theater posters and dance memorabilia. Her retired first pair of pointe shoes hang from a hook on the wall. You can at any point find tights, leotards, bobby pins, stretch bands, hair nets, turn boards, and warm up boots scattered literally anywhere in our house. I admit, I do share beautiful pictures of her progress on Facebook when she has performances. We even recently started a dance-based Instagram account for her where she networks with other pre-professional ballerinas from around the world. I am so proud of the dedication, work, determination, and sacrifice she has shown over the course of her training.
But somewhere along the way, ballet and dance seeped into every single part of her life and subsequently mine. When I was younger, I remember being fascinated by the girls I knew who were training at elite levels in things like ballet, gymnastics, and figure skating. I always wished I had the kind of talent they had, because in my young mind, all you needed to reach the top was natural talent. Never did it occur to me that these girls dedicated their entire lives to their training. I had always assumed they, like me, practiced a few hours after school each week. Even as my daughter worked her way up the ballet ranks, I never fully grasped what that elite-level training looked like. When we started at her current studio, she was 7 years old, and I remember watching the older pre-professional dancers in awe, wondering if my daughter had the talent it would take to get to that point.
Well, once you get past a certain point, everyone has talent. It is no longer about whether or not the dancer has talent, it becomes how much time and money the dancer and her family are willing to put into her training. Which brings us to our current state. We may have jumped off too deep into the satin- and tulle-filled ballet deep end.
My 12-year-old was working an average of about 25 hours a week outside of school, training as a ballerina.
Once my daughter and her fellow dancers got to the age where they were accepted into the studio's professional company, their training began to intensify. As a result, the girls became more competitive. They began vying for the same roles, each very aware of their own limitations and everyone else's abilities. Suddenly, a training schedule of multiple hours, four days a week was the minimum to even think about keeping up with their accelerated age group. If you wanted to push ahead, you were looking at six to seven days a week of class, private training, bootcamps during off weeks, 40-hour-a-week, month-long summer intensives, and extra classes added to the core schedule.
I went along with each extra training opportunity, fairly blind to the idea that there could be any drawback. My daughter wanted to be a professional, and any look at Instagram or YouTube will show you her competition. I felt that panic of, "She's going to fall behind, and she won't reach her goal!" So each time she requested more, I willingly stepped up her training. Her studio accepted her as one of their Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) competitors this year, costing us an extra $2,000 between the months of September and January to cover the private training and choreography sessions. Her school schedule was altered, and she began taking half her classes online. She began dancing seven days a week, 10 hours of core classes, one extra hour of semiprivate Pilates, two to three hours of YAGP rehearsals, plus eight to 14 hours of company rehearsals over the weekends. On top of all of this, she was required to keep her grades as Bs or above in all academic classes to continue with the rigorous dance schedule. My 12-year-old was working an average of about 25 hours a week outside of school, training as a ballerina. Looking at these numbers actually added together makes me wonder when we lost our minds and agreed to this.
She was improving rapidly at dance and amazingly keeping her grades up; however, school and ballet took up every moment of her life. She would get home from school, eat, do classwork, go to the studio for three hours, come home, eat, and beg my husband to help her with a math assignment at 10 o'clock at night. She wasn't sleeping enough and had absolutely zero down time. The thing was, when I asked her, she didn't want to change any of it. She wanted to dance more hours. She always wanted to go back to the studio, even when she was dead on her feet and her body was strained.
One particular afternoon, as I watched a group of kids from her grade across the street, it hit me — she had become a loner.
In January, right before she competed in YAGP, I realized something was off. We had been so focused on things at the studio that every other aspect of her life seemed to fall off the radar. After a long Winter break of her either sitting at home by herself or back in the studio rehearsing, I realized that she never mentioned anyone outside of the dance studio. One particular afternoon, as I watched a group of kids from her grade at the house across the street, it hit me — she had become a loner. All of the other kids at her school and in the neighborhood seemed to be forming groups and friendships that she was never included in. As a mother, my first instinct was to protect her. I wanted to call these kids bullies for leaving my daughter out. Then I began to wonder why they had all stopped texting her and including her in the first place. A few days later, after I picked her up from her regular classes, I asked her who she talked to at school and who she was hanging out with. I was shocked to find out that she really only had one friend at school, another girl who dances at the same studio.
In our quest to create the perfect ballet training, we had completely ignored her needs as a middle schooler. She had become withdrawn around her peers. She explained she was afraid to start conversations with other kids at school because she didn't know what to talk to them about; she didn't share the same experiences. When they were all seeing movies or going to the trampoline park together, she was in ballet classes. When they cheered for the middle school football team, she was at Nutcracker rehearsal. When they did the school play, she was rehearsing. Suddenly, I felt like as a parent, I had made a big mistake.
It took a few weeks and the relative calm after YAGP for me to sit back and reflect on the six months prior. How had we gotten to a point where my sweet girl with the fun, bubbly personality felt so isolated around her classmates? I tried to encourage her to talk to new people each day, reminding her that everyone at her age is afraid to be the one who reaches out to a new friend. I would follow up each afternoon and ask her if she met anyone new that day. She would tell me excitedly about a girl in science who she talked about iPhones with, or a cute boy who made her laugh in computer class. She wanted these experiences, too, but had thrown them aside because she felt she had to to keep up with her advanced dance schedule.
I began reaching out to parents of the senior level dancers at the studio and found that most of them had been disenchanted by similar experiences as ours. While their daughters were popular amongst their dance friends, they noticed that sort of popularity didn't matter when it came down to competing for roles — like any other high-level sport, the girls wanted to be the best. And they only become more competitive as they got older. I found that many of the older girls no longer had friends outside the studio either, which only concerned me further.
Dance classes will be more carefully selected. For the first time in three years, she will not have mandatory classes on Friday nights next season.
After her Spring show was completed in March, an opportunity to understudy for an upcoming performance was offered to my daughter. We declined. It was time for a break, to reassess, and to let her breathe. Because the studio focused on advanced dancers, they continuously offered rigorous training, especially to those who were clearly dedicated and wanted to reach the professional level. We just didn't know when to pull back — until now. So next year is going to look a little different. She may hold on to the partial day school schedule as it has actually seemed to reduce her stress and improve her grades. With the flexibility this allows her, we are encouraging her to join a youth volunteer group outside of school, to hopefully make some connections with the nondancers in her world. Dance classes will be more carefully selected, the extras will likely be trimmed. We will schedule days off. For the first time in three years, she will not have mandatory classes on Friday nights next season. And we're still unsure if she'll participate in YAGP again. Is the one-on-one training beneficial? Yes. Will it be more beneficial down the road if she still wants to pursue a professional career at 16? Probably. Will the studio have written her off by then if she doesn't continue her training on the same track she is on now? It's possible, and there is always someone else waiting to write a check in your place. Will I make sure my daughter gets some of the normal middle school and high school experiences in? Yes. She deserves friends, sleepovers, pool parties, and football games. She should be able to find things in common with the cute boy sitting next to her in computer class, and my guess is he doesn't know a whole heck of a lot about Swan Lake.